Veep Debate 2016

Indiana Governor Mike Pence is practicing for his debate against Virginia Senator Tim Kaine (also practicing). The debate will be on Tuesday 4 October 2016, at Longwood University in Virginia. Elaine Quijano will moderate.

Vice-presidential debates are typically of little matter. They aren’t running to be the leader, so a passing performance is all that’s needed. But, as Trump did not do very well against Hillary Clinton in the first debate, the question arises: what happens if Pence outshines his star?

That’s not to predict a Pence win—Kaine will undoubtedly bring a solid performance of his own. It’s just a general question: how will the electorate respond if it appears that the sidekick is the stronger of the two.

Back when it was time to speculate on veep choices, I pointed out that basically anybody that Trump could pick would have more experience than he does. And, of course, that’s the case. But it’s not clear that the contrast has been made to the electorate, and if it will become clear, the VP debate is that time.

Given the obscurity of the event, the damage is surely limited, but even if only a few Trump voters clue-in to the fact that they’ve got a kind of corporate-inversion ticket on their hands, they might be discouraged. This is especially true if they remember the talk from Governor Kasich of Ohio that Trump basically offered him the position of policy puppeteer.

To put it another way, Hillary Clinton may have been debating someone who plans to be a figurehead if elected, while Kaine may end up debating the one who seeks to handle much of the actual function of the presidency. In that case, the media should really be vetting Paul Ryan for a succession scenario where Pence were to become incapacitated.

In any case, Kaine is more moderate, while Pence is something of an arch-conservative, so the debate will probably be fairly ho-hum except where it applies to the tops of their tickets. Neither of them will open with “Who am I? Why am I here?” as James Stockdale did in 1992. But maybe they should. Almost everything the electorate knows about them is a few clips from their highlight reels on their records (Pence’s needle-exchange opposition, anti-abortion restrictions, etc.; Kaine’s being a moderate Democrat on every issue).

With Trump and Clinton absent, the debate will feature fewer interruptions from Trump—though who knows, he may try to call in. But both Kaine and Pence will inevitably weigh in on the 200-pound candidate sitting on his bed. Pence will do his best to allay fears of Trump, while Kaine will do his best to contrast the inexperience of Trump with the experience of Clinton. But it may also serve him well to point out the experience gap between Trump and his own running mate.